Hungarian Plays from Transylvania

Silenced Voices – Hungarian Plays from Transylvania is an impeccable volume that collects five of the “forgotten playwrights” of Central Europe: András Sütõ (1927–2006), János Székely (1929–1992), Géza Páskándi (1933–1995), Csaba Lászlóffy (1939-), and Géza Szõcs (1953-). They are Hungarian dramatists from Transylvania, each represented by one play, rendered in an English full of life, ready to be performed: András Sütõ’s Advent in the Hargita Mountains (Advent a Hargitán), Csaba Lászlóffy’s The Heretic or a Plague of Slugs (Az eretnek), Géza Páskándi’s The Avenger, the Gatekeeper, or It Is Requested that You Wipe Your Feet (A bosszúálló, a kapus), János Székely’s Caligula’s Governor (Caligula helytartója), and Géza Szõcs’s A Christmas Play or Uncle Louie and the Little Ones (Karácsonyi játék). But the work of revival that translators Csilla Bertha and Donald E. Morse have performed does not stop here: not only are the plays and their authors brought into limelight, but through them Hungarian drama in Romania is also made visible to the English audience. Authors from a community repeatedly denied or ignored through history – one that, as the translators note in the Introduction, has “fallen through the cracks of history and scholarship” (1) and has been, through the many rewritings of history, so often “disappeared” (3) – magically comes alive in this volume through the sympathetic ink and cultural memory work of Bertha and Morse.

But if this literature is little known outside of Transylvania, within Transylvania its role went far beyond the cultural industry: indeed, theatre became the sacred stage for the “exiled words” of the mother tongue, allowing its users the dignity of speaking out loud (even, or especially, in instances when this right was curbed – at such times, the curbing could result in public spectacles of communal protest, bringing greater coherence to the community than undisturbed performances might have). Much of this literature is tragic, expressive of a tragic sense of life: “fate literature”, as it is often called, in which the writers act as the conscience of the nation because they deal with questions of national survival. And, as Csilla Bertha puts it in an essay elsewhere, all these “ancient layers of community feeling” are merged “with modern existential anxiety”.1

In addition to this tragic sense of life, the texts all share, I believe, certain characteristics: the abundance of Biblical references, necessarily resulting in symbolic or allegorical discourse, the provocation of the absurdity of the real, and the appeal of dramatized philosophical and moral debate.

Biblical references abound in András Sütõ’s Advent in the Hargita Mountains (1980/1984), the most popular of the plays included in the volume, performances of which in Hungary have a notable history of their own, contributing prominently to the history of resistance to totalitarianism in the whole region. This is a dramatic world of Biblical dimensions indeed, in which people living under unbearable pressures have huge difficulties in managing human relationships that become inevitably distorted. A world in which the father will order his daughter never to be seen again in his house, or will order her to stay with him forever. This is a world in which boyfriend promises to kill girlfriend if she ever leaves him; where it is not acceptable to cry, only “inwardly”; in which one has to keep one’s laughter to oneself, too; in which both shouting and shooting are forbidden in the mountains; in which the father teaches his daughter not to love passionately; in which the truth kills, as Réka thinks she killed Gábor by shouting the truth at him; in which people “get stuck in childhood’s crevasse”, unable to forget or forgive, in which they hold grudges for decades, and generations melting into one another nourish their pain for centuries. This is a world in which only women, marked as fallen and deceitful because they break every commandment, know forgiveness; in which the boyfriend will appropriate even the girlfriend’s memories; in which childhood wedding games, fairytale weddings conducted under the fairytale tree, are meant to be binding; in which a girl will seamlessly turn into a bird or her own mother or her own daughter; in which boys turn into dogs, barking while courting.

A world in which “life and death walk hand in hand”; in which some rise from the dead and become the “living dead”; in which people can say, “I know it, I who died once”. This is a world in which people live what Thomas Mann called, in his essay on Freud, the “quotation-like life” of people of mythological times, constantly referring to past events lived by their ancestors.2 They therefore think and speak in parables, believing themselves to be the inheritors of divine promises made at the dawn of time, and expect God to watch over every move they make over the centuries. Time has a very particular meaning in this world, cyclical rather than linear, measured by Fate rather than mortals. As such, years, decades, and centuries do not stand between events, and people accept the possibility of living the lives of others, whether their ancestors or their successors. No wonder that they speak an archaic language, lofty and eloquent, given here in an impassioned English at times ballad-like, at other times grandly sublime:

Bódi: My Lord, You take away the living one by one and in Your great anger You visit us with additional punishment. We cannot be together even with our dead any longer. Give us back at least our dead, my Lord, and we will resurrect them instead of You with our affection. You take the living far away, You hold the dead in the unknown so as to increase our loneliness. You leave the trees next to one another in Your forests and You don’t scatter Your stars in the firmament so that they cannot see one another. Why is it that You assign the fate of windblown dandelion seeds to our children? And if You do that to us, why did You take away from us the right to speak out loud? (p. 81.)

Finally, this is a world in which people still believe in the power of words, and feel robbed of their pride when the right to speak out loud has been taken away from them. As Bódi says in the very last scene of the play:

We have no hope of any more miracles. And even if we did, our unsuitability for miracles stands fully revealed. Miracles ran away from our vicinity like the winged snow bunting, which had no peace from human talk. Everything – whatever might be good for us – escapes far away especially from our speech, which has been mutilated by Small Destruction and Great Destruction into a ground-crawling whisper and a pale memory of speaking out loud. Let our tears fall, child, let our grief ooze free inside without a sound. May God give peace to Réka Árvai and Gábor Zetelaki. (p. 97.)

The liturgical season punctuates the dramatic events in Advent, enlarging the advent-waiting into a metaphor for the whole mode of existence of the Hungarian national minority under oppression. Somewhat like the Seder night in Jewish folklore and literature, where the boy opens the door for the Prophet Elijah to enter, Sütõ’s play foregrounds not only New Testament but Old Testament correspondences, as well, establishing a national identification with Christ’s suffering as well as with the suffering of the Jews. Such literature, then, becomes a compendium of exempla and figurae, permeated with topoi such as that of waiting for God’s promise to be fulfilled.

No wonder that the dramatic voice is predominantly symbolic and allegorical in these plays, with figurative talk evoking indirectly what cannot be said directly. The association that comes to mind here is that with American Puritan literature, relying on the understanding of America as figura and also expressing a typological way of thinking. Much like the Puritan writer, the Transylvanian dramatist must also be guided by the community’s spiritual goals, and offer explanations for the events of life. Both communities seem to have taken solace in speaking in Biblical allegories, in recognizing wonder-working Providence even in their daily hardships and afflictions, and in reading in events divine signs and messages sent to them by the Almighty. A sense of mission is clearly detectable in these plays, preparing the community for the mission of the national dream.

It is fully understandable, then, that the play of ideas, the dramatized philosophical and moral debate, stands as the typical dramatic genre. Examples include János Székely’s Caligula’s Governor (1972/1978), the central issue of which concerns how, when Caligula demands that they break their customs, the Jews can retain their religion under Roman rule. The allegory is obvious: the Jews figure as the Hungarians, who make every effort to withstand the Romanian attempts to replace Hungarian customs, beliefs, and values with those of the Roman(ian) state. Petronius is the ruler whose principality is part of a larger empire. And while he is the unrestricted ruler of Syria, he must recognize the limits of his power. His “half-power, half-servitude” (p. 234.) exemplifies the impossibility of moral behaviour (anywhere in the hierarchy) under the tyranny of this Ceaucescu-Caligula.

Where is my absolute power, Probus?

“Order anything” – it’s easy to say.

And yet I can’t order anything but

That which he has commanded me to do.

I recall a maxim about this, Lucius.

“The natural final border of power

Is the point up to which the loyalty

Of the subject goes.” (p. 221.)

Petronius has huge moral dilemmas; and in trying to find ways to save his own soul, he hears the advice of Barakias, Head Rabbi in the Temple of Jerusalem: “stay among us and do nothing”. (p. 234.) The highly charged ethical debates between Petronius and Barakias probe the nature of absolute power. As Barakias explains to Petronius in the last scene, the only acceptable form of power is “non-acting power”.

Petronius: I don’t follow. Invented inactive what?

Barakias: Non-acting power, my Lord, the only

Right and defensible form of power,

Because it remains confined within its

Own circle, and does not appropriate

Our whole lives. (p. 255.)

Csaba Lászlóffy’s The Heretic (1970/1993), another play of ideas, is set in the distant future, at a time when there are neither victims of nor resistance to the Secret Police. The work has been done, all the citizens have been successfully turned into obedient robots and subservient informers, and the one-time torturers have become bureaucrats and “professionals”, leaving the police interrogation room an empty space recalling the sweet dream of despotism and torture. The interrogation officers are desolate: their “muscles grow completely soft and, what’s more, they atrophy… not a single evening incident; never a telephone ringing in the middle of the night; you can sleep peacefully” (p. 104.); the “romance of the profession” (p. 108.) is gone. The enemies of the state have evaporated, with only “two persons imprisoned on remand” (p. 111.), leaving behind a very unhappy corps of secret police without a mission, having lost all the fun (of torturing people) in life. While it might be a utopian dream of perfection for the Conqueror himself, for the henchmen it is a dystopic nightmare of self-annihilation. So they play a game with two men picked up at random in the streets: a “toilet attendant” and a Shabbatist, both having served the state as informers for years already. Reliving the good old times, they force them to confess what they don’t know, to give “some hard evidence” against those whose identity is not known even to them. Absurdity permeates every niche of life: Itelb the Shabbatist – a Shabbatist who “doesn’t [?] belong to the sect” (p. 115.) – is “called” Itelb even though “there’s no such name” (p. 114.). People must be able to describe the unexpected, the surprises of the future. By an “increase in supply”, 30,000 copies of the general’s memoirs are sold in a town in which only 27,000 people are literate. Interrogations are kept on tapes on which the voices are real but the tapes are not. It is these tapes to which the interrogators go back; and as they listen to them, they feel that they get back their energy. They recall with envy the time of the Inquisition, the “most exciting period” of history (from a “professional viewpoint”), when “nearly everybody – father, son, and Holy Spirit – was an informer”. (p. 141.) Finally, the officers, the Terrorboys, and the corrupt priest (who willingly acquiesces to use a tape recorder at confessions) agree that “With hatred you can really start doing things”, (p. 147.) and conclude that the world has “not a single backbone”. (p. 157.)

Géza Páskándi’s The Avenger, the Gatekeeper, or It Is Requested that You Wipe Your Feet (1969/1971) is absurd theatre – or “absurdoid,” as Páskándi himself called it – but rather different from the Western Theatre of the Absurd in that here it is not the meaninglessness of existence that is foregrounded but rather the impossible situation in which the victim is also an accomplice to the total power of the dictatorship that dehumanizes and demoralizes him. The whole play takes place in the first Feet-Wiping Bureau, whose sole function is to make people wipe their feet, otherwise it does not lead anywhere – like the Gatekeeper who has no Gate to keep. A series of absurd situations evolve from the moment when a man without feet rolls into the office in his wheelchair: does total power cease to be total just because one person’s feet have been amputated? Would this mean the failure of power? Does the man without feet rightfully shoot the Director for blatantly neglecting those under him? Does he rightfully become the Gatekeeper? What happens when another man without feet enters, now disrespecting and disregarding the power of the new Gatekeeper, and power in general? And what if all these events were orchestrated by some invisible power, which after all does exist, behind the Gates of the Feet-Wiping Bureau?

Géza Szõcs’s A Christmas Play or Uncle Louie and the Little Ones 1988/1990) is a radio drama, a sardonic and grotesque comedy portraying Herod’s despotic regime and its insane operations. We would call it absurd, had it not been “realistic”, a true depiction of the absurd reality under Ceauºescu. (So again it is not literature that is absurd, but life, it seems.) Again, the allegory is obvious, Ceauºescu’s mandatory titles are evoked in the titles of Herod: “The Warmly Respected Beloved Ruler”, “The Nile of the Spirit”, “The Glorious Sun Disk on the Eternal Noon Meridian of History”, “The Benefactor of Adults and the Guardian of Children”, “The Consoler of Widows”, “the political giant whom we follow on the path leading to the future in a rock-strong unity”. (p. 264.) Because Herod is pathologically afraid he will be assassinated by his people (“Evil hands and minds are incessantly conceiving diabolical assassinations against him, attempting to extinguish his divine life” (p. 265.), he sends “a substitute object of worship”. So the person sitting on the portable throne is not Herod himself, but his look-alike stand-in double: a deaf-and-dumb slave eunuch. As he demands that the Temple of Jerusalem be destroyed, “sacrificed for the future” (p. 266.), Herod’s evokes the insane logic of Ceauºescu’s insane acts – such as the “demolishing program” (where complete villages were bulldozed), the “law of accommodation” (the prosecution of those who took in “foreigners” [Hungarians from Hungary]), punishing parents for the emigration of children (to Hungary primarily), conducting show trials for any invented crime. Other historical references will make him into the grand ancestor of all dictators, with disciples that include Hitler. All this leads only too logically to the killing of infants, which will be given a particular twist in the Bethlehem ruled by Ceauºescu-Herod. The citizens of the town will themselves ask for the killings: they will “write an application to Herod in which they beg for the Bethlehem infants to be killed” (p. 278.). Szõcs’s sarcasm becomes total: Louis will denounce anyone, including his elder son, and will indeed ask that his younger son be put to death together with all other Bethlehem infants. Moreover, he will express Bethlehem’s gratitude to Herod for the slaughter of its children.

Hell breaks loose in the grand finale of the radio drama, as – in a manner reminiscent of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator perhaps – “Radio Herod” broadcasts the dictator’s raging voice as he assures the world from his “damp burial chamber” that he is alive and kicking.

But Herod is alive. In Bethlehem our soldiers killed with their own hands the real Son of the Lord, the Messiah, Emmanuel, together with the other infants… Tremble! Herod the Mighty is preparing for a war more murderous than any other before against everyone who is miserable and who is wishy-washy and who is different! He who is different will be slaughtered! Only he who is like us can survive! You’re in the hands of Herod’s soldiers! Only Herod’s country survives like a glorious constellation in the night of time. Slaves, woe to you, down with you! You didn’t even notice, you didn’t realize that war started against you long ago. There are many of you, but you’re weak and dumb. You’re a herd of sheep in the slaughterhouse of history where Herods are the butchers. Slaves, woe to you! Long live Herod! Long live the plague! Long live the Mongol hordes! (p. 281-82.)

The dictator’s voice then melts into the order to Fire! – only to be followed by an endless sound of weapons fired. Szõcs’s play, absurdly realistic as well as prophetic, was written in 1988, only one year before the dictator’s voice was swallowed by the sound of weapons that were turned against him. And although the Romanian revolution seems to have failed by most accounts, the inspired clairvoyance (in this case I mean the literal clear-sightedness) of the author does indeed rank with Chaplin’s, who made his own satire on Nazi Germany back in 1940, several years before the events that were depicted took place or were known.

Earlier I mentioned two nations with whom Transylvanian Hungarians might be shown to have a family resemblance: Jews and early Americans. There is a third nation in line, the Irish – indeed, it can be no accident that the book was published in Ireland. Observers have customarily linked the Irish with the Hungarians,3 pointing out several similarities. For example, for both nations the transcendental is immanent, the other world is present in this earthly one, if only one has eyes to see. Irish and Hungarian – and especially Transylvanian – literature seem to share the affinity of the people in these lands of singers and enchanters with the irrational and the fabulous. Moreover, both literatures tend to show the “essence” of national character in the collective experience, to produce literature that will serve the cultural memory of the nation. This book of translations will serve as a compendium of these similarities, collecting plays that indeed reveal the transcendental in the immanent, an affinity with the irrational and the fabulous, and collective experience that contains some national “essence”.

Finally, a few words about the translations. They are all excellent, all alive, all very different, as are the plays that have been selected. Advent is rendered in semi-archaic English, The Heretic invents a rough language for the jobless secret police, peppered with lovely bureaucratic tics reminiscent indeed of communist-socialist times.4 The Avenger uses a neutral language, transparent even, where some of the best lines are hidden in the dramatic instructions, and very often the funniest scenes (like the physical fight between the two men in wheelchairs) involve no words at all. Caligula is translated in dignified philosophical blank verse, one that carries with it both the naturalness and the loftiness of the English verse line. A Christmas Play moulds an English that is at once Swiftean and Kafkaesque, witty and sardonic.

The excellence of these translations might come as a surprise to some Hungarians who tend to believe that their literature is untranslatable, making one of the core elements of Hungarian culture, literature, impossible to internationalize. Indeed, though one of the most pessimistic nations in the world, Hungarians seem to take pride in one thing (in addition to the suicidal pessimism itself): the untranslatability of anything written in their overly difficult language. In this self-image lies perhaps the root of the centrality of literature within Hungarian culture: in its combining, as well as being produced by, a history peppered with acts of fate and absurd dictatorships, a strange (Finno-Ugric) language related distantly to Finnish and Estonian in Europe (but hopelessly difficult for speakers of Romance, Germanic, and Slavic languages – in other words just about everyone else in Europe), and the psychological disposition to hopelessness. Hungarians, as the London émigré critic László Cs. Szabó remarked, believe that the only fatherland “worthy of human habitation” is the one “that sparked inside poetry” – meaning language and literature.5 For a people who find themselves all alone in Europe in terms of language, who have been dealt a rather difficult history, and who see themselves as most alive when hit by a black Irish mood, it is no wonder that they turn to literature, where language, history and mood can all interact, as they do in this volume of beautifully selected and translated dramatic texts. We owe a debt of thanks to the admirable professional cooperation of Csilla Bertha and Donald Morse.

(Selected and translated by Csilla Bertha and Donald E. Morse, Carysfort Press, Dublin, 2008.)


1 Csilla Bertha, “On the Sea of Torment’: Hungarian Literature throughout the Centuries”. Genre and Ethnic Collections: Collected Essays. Ed. Milton T. Wolf (London: JAI Press, 1996). pp. 419–40.

2 Quoted in C.G. Jung and C. Kerényi, Essays on a Science of Mythology – The Myths of the Divine Child and the Divine Maiden (New York: Harper and Row, 1953), p. 4.

3 On how Hungarian writers viewed this affinity between the Irish and the Hungarian character, see Vöõ, Gabriella. “A Congenial Race: Reflections on Irish Literature and National Character in the Hungarian Literary Journal Nyugat”. Literary and Cultural Relations between Ireland, Hungary and Central and Eastern Europe. Ed. Mária Kurdi. Dublin: Carysfort, 2009. pp. 139–62.

4 For example, “retire prematurely” (p. 112); “The pieces of information of the above named person, including those satisfying the special requirements of the organization, have always proved to be indisputable… Nearly all the pieces of information are coloured by great historical examples, parallels, and picturesque landscape elements” (p. 153).

5 “A Nation and Its Poetry”. In In Quest of the “Miracle Stag”: The Poetry of Hungary. Ed. Ádám Makkai. Vol. 1. Chicago: Atlantis-Centaur, 2000. p. 1079.

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